For hours they wait, killing time by pacing under the glaring sun. Young mothers pull on small children, while older, tired women sit on makeshift chairs –all keep their eye on the guards. Every Saturday they show up, bearing bags of clean clothes, home-cooked food, maybe even a used television set or old radio. They go for their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers – inmates at a Venezuelan state prison, where 4,600 detainees are crammed into buildings with an official capacity of only 1,200.
The waiting visitors are each stamped with a number on their arm when they arrive. By midday the amount of people queuing reaches past a thousand, and wraps around the chain-linked fence surrounding the facility. As the day nears nightfall they leave, many carrying empty dishes and lists of items to bring next time. But not all have made it inside the visitor’s room.
“The guards charge us to enter, that’s just the way it’s done. You can see it happening for yourself.” Waiting to see her husband, one young woman reports her experiences to one of a team of anti-corruption activists who joined the crowds for a day-long event outside the prison. Led by Transparency International Venezuela and other civil rights organisations, the event was held following reports that guards were taking bribes to decide who could enter the prison, and what gifts made it inside. Armed with megaphones, leaflets and legal advice forms, the volunteers came to document activities and help visitors understand and enforce their rights.
What they observed was an immense abuse of power. Prison guards openly kissed women. Every so often a guard marked the purse of a visitor with tape after she succumbed to demands for money.
Some bribes were small – 30 Venezuelan Bolivars (US$5) to jump ahead in line – others large, planned out expenses – 40,000 Bolivars as a down payment (with 500 Bolivar weekly payments) to have their family members relocated to a safe zone within the prison, one that includes three daily meals.
A young woman waiting in line claimed she was asked to pay to have her boyfriend relocated out of his cell – where he is allegedly sexually abused by his six fellow inmates on a daily basis.
Sadly, her story is not unique. “The isolated nature of prisons means they can easily turn into hubs for corrupt activities,” says Mercedes De Freitas, Executive Director of Transparency International Venezuela. “And in Venezuela, where people face security issues in their day to day lives, they often show very little concern for prison inmates. That’s why we started this initiative – to bring to light abuses that can otherwise go ignored, and to help the victims speak out and demand change.”
The volunteers left with a high number of documented cases that day. Since then they’ve returned again and again to document more cases. They are now working to address each one, while generating greater advocacy for the larger issue at hand.
“Some cases are straightforward, but others allegedly involve prison directors and top level staff. Those are more complex and will involve in-depth investigations”, says De Freitas. “Above all what we are doing is giving a voice to the victims of corruption.” There might be a long way to go, she says, but there are already signs of change. “We are raising a wave of awareness that’s creating solidarity and support. More people are coming forward and blowing the whistle on the corruption taking place in their lives.”